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Visit certain, timing’s the question

New Delhi, May 29: Sonia Gandhi will visit Pakistan, but the timing has to be right.

External affairs minister Natwar Singh today said the Congress president and chairperson of the ruling alliance would “certainly” visit the neighbouring country. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had last week extended an invitation to her. But the dates for the visit have not been decided.

Sonia’s stock has gone up considerably within and outside India, particularly in South Asia, after she declined the Prime Minister’s post. She can expect a rousing welcome whenever she visits Pakistan. Her children, Rahul and Priyanka, who went to Karachi for the first one-dayer of the revival series in March, were received warmly by the government and the people.

But Congress sources said Sonia cannot visit unless there is a major breakthrough in bilateral relations. She does not hold any constitutional position and even though this does not prevent her from going to Pakistan, a visit needs to be at a time when there is a possibility of a historic agreement being signed. Otherwise, it could provide ammunition to her political opponents looking for an opportunity to embarrass her and the Congress.

Although it was never acknowledged officially, Pakistani officials had admitted during private conversations that they wanted the National Democratic Alliance to return to power as the Musharraf regime, particularly the President, had struck a rapport with Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

A course correction must have been made in the past few weeks. Musharraf called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia to congratulate them on the Congress’ victory while expressing his desire to work closely with the new government to improve relations.

Today, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali called Singh to congratulate him on assuming office. The two Prime Ministers noted that the cricket series and other exchanges have shown the people’s desire for friendly relations and stressed that “we should respond to this popular will”, official sources said. The two leaders also expressed satisfaction with the status of the dialogue process.

The Manmohan Singh government, which made it clear that it would like to continue with the peace process initiated by the Vajpayee government, has pointed out that while talks are necessary to settle differences, they need to be held in an atmosphere free of violence.

Natwar Singh, who was in Jaipur today, said the Simla Agreement of 1972 would be the basis for the talks. He also made it clear that the new government would not “compromise” on cross-border terrorism.

“India will pursue talks with Pakistan on the basis of the Simla Agreement. We want better relations with our western neighbour,” the minister said.

Though he was critical of the Vajpayee government for changing its Pakistan policy “at least five times”, the minister did not want to go into details, saying there was no need for a “post-mortem”.

Natwar Singh said the Congress-led government was keen to see the Munabao-Khokhrapar link between India and Pakistan through Rajasthan opened at the earliest and would work towards this.

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